Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Sixth Annual Youth Media Education and Leadership Conference

At the end of the spring semester, over one-hundred students from South and East Los Angeles attended WLP's sixth annual Youth Media Education and Leadership conference at Cal State University Dominguez Hills. Attendees participated in youth-led workshops on homophobia, feminism, juvenile justice activism, and anti-bullying strategies. The conference was sponsored by the L.A. County Human Relations Commission and kicked off with a skit by Women’s Leadership Project students which spotlighted racial discrimination in discipline policies. The skit featured the case of Kiera Wilmot, a black female eleventh grader from Florida who was expelled from school after a science experiment she conducted exploded. As WLP leaders Betsy Casas and Ariana Mercado concluded the skit the middle and high school student audience listened with uncharacteristic intensity. Afterwards, WLP students led a discussion on how racial and gender stereotypes inform cultural perceptions about achievement in science and higher education. While students of color are routinely criminalized, overrepresented in prisons and juvenile detention facilities, they are sorely underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields where expectations of white or Asian male scientific “genius” and innovation are pervasive.

Nationwide, black children are disproportionately suspended and expelled. They spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity transferred to other campuses and more time cycling in and out of juvenile detention facilities than children of other ethnicities. Nonetheless, black students DO NOT offend at higher rates than other ethnicities; a national travesty that has been documented in numerous public policy studies. Responding to this travesty, students in the audience noted that they or their friends had been targeted unfairly by harsh discipline policies. This discussion was an important step for allowing the participants to critique and challenge insidious stereotypes which mainstream media imposes on youth of color.

Many of the conference sessions encouraged youth to take ownership of their image and plug into activist networks in the South L.A. community. Presenters contextualized demeaning portrayals of youth of color vis-à-vis social justice, racism, sexism, homophobia and economic disparities in their communities.

During the South L.A. Social Activists session, radio commentator and activist riKu Matsuda facilitated an interactive Q&A with South Los Angeles activists Brandon Bell (Wisdom from the Field), Eugene Durrah, Edna Monroy (undocumented youth advocacy), Onyenma Obiekea and Nourbese Flint (Black Women for Wellness) and WLP alumnus Clay Wesley. What followed was a captivating discussion on each panelist’s journey toward becoming involved in community organizing. They also delved into the personal obstacles and sociopolitical climate young people of color must navigate in order to defy the high college drop-out rates of youth of color.

In one of the most heated sessions of the day, Washington Prep High School’s Women’s Leadership Project and Gay/Straight Alliance groups led a workshop on “Confronting Homophobia, Creating Safe Spaces”. The presenters introduced an interactive exercise where students were asked whether or not they’d defend a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender friend who was being attacked because of their sexual orientation. While most participants agreed that they would defend their friend, a few others felt that they weren’t obligated to. Presenters Jamion Allen, Destiny Davis and Imani Moses spoke passionately about having a moral obligation as an ally. When the subject turned to marriage equality the youth presenters got into a debate about whether the marriages of atheists and LGBT folk could rightfully be recognized by Christian churches. Rounding out the session, the presenters expertly prodded their peers to analyze the lack of representation of LBGT people—particularly LGBT people of color—in history and in the media. Participants discussed how this void can lead to the demonization of LGBT families, communities and children.

Another workshop was conducted by the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), a South L.A.-based organization that addresses juvenile justice public policy and prisoner re-entry initiatives. YJC presenters talked about racist sentencing policies, media stereotypes and the limited opportunities available to youth of color in a school-to-prison pipeline culture. The session was eye-opening for many of the participants who’d never had a public forum to discuss the impact of prison pipelining on their lives. In addition to spearheading public policy around sentencing, YJC advocates for equitable jobs, education, housing and training programs for youth ex-offenders and their families.

The Washington Prep’s No Haters Here club conducted a workshop on anti-bullying strategies and ally-building. Gardena High’s WLP led a session which addressed the marginalization of women of color historical figures and activists in mainstream media, textbooks and cultural representation.